Working While Studying for your MBA

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“So you’re thinking about getting an MBA? Why?” 

That was the question I heard over and over before applying to USC’s PMBA program. 

I didn’t have a good answer. I missed school. I wanted to push myself. I wanted to combat the imposter syndrome I felt at work. I wanted to take back some of the control over my life that I felt I’d lost when I dropped out of law school and moved back to the States to care for my mom who was diagnosed with cancer. 

Ultimately, all of these wants came from the same place — the need to feel like I was moving forward. 

Call it a quarter-life crisis. 

I’ve heard just about every argument there is for getting an MBA, for not getting one, for doing it full-time, for doing it part-time, and now that I’m halfway through, I made the right choice by pursuing it — and pursuing it while working full-time. 

If you’re considering this option, I’d like to share some of the challenges and benefits that I’ve experienced. Maybe it will make your decision a little easier. 

Challenges:

Priorities 

I decided before entering the program that my job was my first priority, and work and school should be kept separate. That meant no homework until my work-work was finished, no listening to lectures during the work day (except sometimes during lunch if necessary), and no discussing class projects with my groups while on the clock. 

This strict delineation between work and school has made for some late nights, but it has also pushed me to finish coursework early rather than waiting until the last minute (a bad habit from undergrad). It also has made it easier to compartmentalize, which has been helpful for managing stress. 

Failure

When I entered the program, I felt like I knew what I was getting into. I’d been a student before— and a good one at that! I knew what I needed to do to perform well academically. Or so I thought. 

So wrong. So, so wrong. 

Taking on this kind of project means you have to get comfortable with failure. You’re always going to fail somewhere: at work as you try to build your career while running on half-empty, at school as you’re trying to re-learn calculus at 8pm after working all day, in your family life as you struggle to be present for and supportive of the people who depend on you. It’s going to happen. And learning to manage it is one of the most valuable and useful lessons you will learn.

I had a bit of a crisis after my first few semesters (which happened to be right at the beginning of COVID). 

So you’re getting an MBA. Why? What was the goal? 

That was a pivotal question for overcoming my feelings of failure. The goal wasn’t to get an A+ on every assignment or a perfect GPA. The goal was to learn as much as I could and apply those lessons in a real-world working environment so that I could keep moving forward. And I was doing that. I was failing a lot. But I was learning 10x more than I was failing. I had to determine new metrics for measuring my success, and suddenly failure wasn’t a reflection of my value; it was a marker of progress. 

Sleep

Sleep is important. It is tempting to stay up past midnight working on research papers or replaying course lectures, but the next day you still have to wake up and be productive at the office. Ideally, not in a foul mood. So I make sleep a priority. I think that’s why most of my coworkers still like me. If you are one of those superhumans who can get by on four hours of sleep per night, I envy you. Also call me. I want to know your secrets. 

Benefits:

Skills

People learn in different ways. I learn from instruction and experience. The skills, both hard and soft, that we have worked on in the program are ones that I can usually find a way to apply directly in my work life, further reinforcing the lessons and, hopefully, increasing my value as an employee. 

Suddenly, you start looking at things differently at work. Considering them from different angles that weren’t available to you before. Having a better grasp on how your coworkers in different departments view things within the company makes for better, more empathetic conversations as you realize why your peers approach problems differently depending on their role. 

Connections

An MBA, and particularly the PMBA, is a great opportunity to meet extraordinary people. I have had the absolute pleasure of meeting and working with all sorts of bright, driven professionals who are doing interesting things that I have never even thought about! It is motivating to interact with and learn from my classmates and their varied experiences. 

Without fail, there will be at least one person per class who essentially does whatever we are studying for a living, and they bring invaluable real-world insight to our theoretical discussions. 

Confidence

An unexpected benefit has been confidence. I realized a lot of my imposter syndrome came from fear of failure, but once failure became a marker of progress, I started trying to be a little bolder at work, became less afraid of asking “stupid questions,” speaking up when I felt I had something valuable to contribute. Fortunately, at FUEL, personal and professional growth are a priority, and I have felt consistently supported and challenged to push the boundaries of my comfort level. If I ask a dumb question, no one puts me down. They answer. If I offer up something that is perhaps not as strategically valuable as I hoped it would be, it is never met with ridicule, only constructive feedback. 

I can do things now that I couldn’t dream of a few years ago. 

Worth it? 

So is it worth it? It has been for me. But I’m lucky. 

I have the amazing opportunity to work at a company where I am encouraged to learn and grow. Where I know I can ask for help if I’m drowning. If that wasn’t the case, I’m not sure I could be taking this on. I am incredibly grateful for that and for the patience and support of friends and family. 

I can’t tell you whether it’s worth it for you. But I hope sharing my experiences helps you to decide. Consider your goals and how an MBA will help you reach those goals, if you’re ready for big failures and challenges, and what you aim to gain–both personally and professionally–from the experience. 

FUEL.
To find out how we can help, get in touch!